The Sierra Nevada Conservancy awarded Trout Unlimited, $47,121 on December 10 for the Oak Creek Watershed Restoration Project (WRAP). Oak Creek, west of Independence, was hit with a wildfire in 2007 followed by a flood in 2008 that washed down more than a million cubic yards of debris throughout the floodplain.
The grant will go toward the third of a four step process of WRAP and was made available through Proposition 1 funding. Voter approved in 2014, Proposition 1 created a $7.5 billion bond to assist with state water projects and programs.
Phase Three will involve completing mandated environmental compliances and reports under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as well as obtaining permits from the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers to perform work in the water channel. Step Four will be the hands-on restoration work.
This is Trout Unlimited’s first stab at Oak Creek and its first project in the Eastern Sierra, said Jessica Strickland, California Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimited headquartered in Mammoth. She told The Sheet the project hasn’t been on the radar because she and Trout Unlimited have only been in the area for 18 months. The first thing Strickland did when she got here was look at opportunities “identifying priority projects” that Trout Unlimted could assist with, with the public’s consent. Trout Unlimited does not want to involve itself in a project no one wants, Strickland said.
She credits Todd Ellsworth, Forest Service Hydrologist for spearheading the project and helping gather public input from locals, including the Fort Independence Tribe. According to Strickland, the land’s manager, the Inyo National Forest, and other stakeholders all consider restoration of Oak Creek a number one priority.
The Forest Service, a federal agency, cannot apply for California Prop. 1 funds. Fortunately, the non-profit Trout Unlimited can. Strickland called the grant a perfect example of how a non-profit can assist in a situation when there are few other options for the feds.
The latest project will offer planning and suggestions for restoration, but will not be the final design for WRAP.
Ultimately, the restoration will include removal of invasive plants and weeds, like Russian thistle, planting of vegetation in riparian areas and along the creek banks for stabilization and restoring waterways and channels so more water is directed to the floodplains. Some woody debris will probably be added into the creek to provide habitat for insects and wind breaks along the waterway.
Step Three will begin in May 2016 with environmental reviews and mandated public input with permits from the Forest Service expected by June 2017. The restoration will begin shortly thereafter.
Oak Creek is northwest of Independence and is the water supply for the Historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery. In 2008 the hatchery was flooded and the structure nearly a total loss. But the hatchery lost the most important component of raising fish, the water. Bruce Ivey, a Friend of the Hatchery, said in a past interview that Oak Creek had the perfect water for a hatchery. The waterway was covered with trees, the shade keeping the water cold, but many of them were lost to fire or flood.
The hatchery has since been restored enough to allow for some fish hatching. Strickland said the hatchery is a county and state project, and there is little word if it will ever be operational again. She added that with restoration and time, the creek may regain its reputation for ideal fish breeding.
The final design plan will include a wide variety of plants and shrubs that will be sowed in the affected areas, including trees along the creek banks, Strickland said.